Question 2 - why is something that is supposed to be so natural so difficult?
It is Maundy Thursday today. My most recent time in the Anglican church found me being an altar server, and on Maundy Thursday we would strip the altar bare, in preparation for our Good Friday services. We would remove everything - the crosses (which were robed in purple for the lenten season), the adornments - everything from the altar, leaving it an empty shell. It was one of the rituals I grew to love within this church. It is ironic because when I was a child in the Anglican church, I hated the rituals. It felt odd to have everything pre-written and to sing, say and chant the same prayers every week. There was no room for spontaneity, and I always felt itchy. When I moved back to Barbados 9 years ago, I joined this particular church on the recommendation of a friend who assured me that it was not a high church full of pomp and circumstance, but it was the rituals I came to enjoy the most. I felt by that point that I had wandered far from God, and the rituals began to bring me back. They provided a sense of peace and security. They gave me words when I didn’t know what to pray. And they gave me a sense of routine which I loved, especially when life was chaotic.
If you are wondering how I wound up returning to the Anglican church in the first place, that story began many thousands of miles away in Bristol, where I went to university. After the Christian fellowship welcoming party befriended me, I would join one or the other of them for church, and I experienced many of the local churches that students frequented. If I am honest - I was too afraid to admit that I had turned my back on Christianity, and that might have been my saving grace (no pun intended). These folks were great friends. Some of them lived on my floor, and I can remember many cups of tea and hot chocolate, late night chats and prayer meetings, and philosophical discussions. I made some big changes at this time. I gave up taking sugar in my tea (because one night I went to a friend’s room and she offered me tea, but she didn’t have any sugar. And she had already made it. One of the biggest crimes you can commit in the UK is to refuse a cup of tea, so I drank it, and have never sweetened my tea again). I took up cooking (as a student on a limited budget, it seemed like the best option! Plus it was the first time in a long time that I felt as if I had kitchen freedom, and I could control what ingredients I bought.) I made some of my best friends this way, by randomly inviting them for dinner. One friend in particular came up to me and asked if she could come for dinner and come to church with me - and we are the best of friends up to this day! And she still comes for dinner - even if it involves an 8 hour flight on Virgin! I joined organizations. I did crazy impulsive things - like take a bus with a virtual stranger and spent the night sleeping in a park in London so that I could watch Princess Diana’s funeral. And I joined an Anglican church. I taught Sunday School, I was in the choir, I took trips overseas with the youth group, and I taught vacation bible school.
In case you are wondering what happened between me swearing off of church just before I left Barbados, and becoming someone who went to church 5 times a week - its an interesting story! (And in case you are wondering - there was church on Sunday morning and Sunday night, prayer breakfast on Tuesday morning, student night on Wednesday and choir practice, which I believe was on Thursday night). One of the concepts I was introduced to when I moved to the UK and started to go to church there was that of having a relationship with God. He wasn’t just a big judge in the sky, but someone who desired to have an intimate relationship with us, and in fact - it was what we were created for. I loved this concept when I learned about it. I longed for such closeness and intimacy - despite having many friends, I was pretty lonely. I wanted this relationship so much, that I went all in on trying to cultivate it. Bible studies, youth meetings, prayer - both communal and on my own, and full scale involvement. Looking back I cannot think of anything I could have done differently to work on this relationship that I so longed for.
I felt nothing. I was always heartbroken and a little upset when people said that God spoke to them, because it was all I ever wanted, and I don’t remember ever having any such feeling. I loved church - and it was nothing like the Anglican church that I grew up in. We went to the pub after church on a Sunday night and people had pints! (Not me, I still don’t understand how people drink beer.) Sometimes people swore! Sometimes they got drunk. And sometimes they told us they weren’t perfect either. I had never seen anything like it. I met so many people whose lives were transformed by this relationship, and I could not feel it at all. And I kept going back in the hope that one day I too could feel this connection.
So many other things happened during that time - one of the more significant being that I met a few people who were openly gay - some in the church, and some not. This was something I had never experienced before, and I was shocked to discover that - they were ordinary people. One of them became one of my closest friends. We lived in the same hall, and we cooked and ate together. We holidayed together. I went to his parents house and stayed there many times - and they still come and see me when they come to Barbados. I felt really conflicted at this time. For one thing - the relationship that I was supposedly born to experience felt non-existent. Prayer felt like words spoken to someone who would not answer. I never felt the presence. It felt like an exercise in futility. On the other hand, this person who I grew up being told was doing the worst of all the sins was loving and kind and generous. He felt more real than my faith. I also met another person at that time who was openly gay but from a very Christian family, and he was very conflicted. His family was also warm and welcoming, and they wanted him to be himself, but they too were torn. And he loved the church and loved God, but he felt rejected, as if he could not be accepted just as he was.
There were so many tough questions for me then. Aside from the usual - are people born gay or do they choose the lifestyle? (Someone I met asked me why I thought anyone would choose to be persecuted, and an outcast their whole life). And others like - do you really hate the sin but love the sinner? And if that is so, why did the church feel like a somewhat exclusive club? But the arms and the families of the people I had been taught to stay far away from, and to fear their “agenda” felt welcoming and loving? And the big one - why can’t I develop this relationship that I am longing so much to have? I wasn’t doing any of the (obvious) things - drinking, fornicating, lying, stealing… I was doing the things I thought I should be doing - praying, fasting, communing… And I wanted it so much. But life went on. I made close friends, I finished my degree, and I started work. There were times when things happened in my life that I was sure were God looking out for me - a badly needed cheque showed up on my doorstep, I was able to find a job at a supermarket and that allowed me to complete my degree and make up the shortfall. I developed some great relationships even with faculty members who were in the Christian Dental fellowship - some of which have had lasting impact to this day.
And in the background, my dad became terminally ill. I definitely didn’t know how ill he was - he wouldn’t tell me (and no one else would either) and my sisters were in other countries studying. After working for a year post graduation, I could not find another job that I wanted, and I returned to Barbados. A month later, he passed away, and there were a series of stressful events that followed - the details of which are not so important. Around that time another friend’s mum passed away, and she had been like a surrogate mum to me. She also had cancer. It was a difficult year.
I remember praying for both of them, and not just me - they had a lot of prayer. I couldn’t understand how God decided who to heal, and who to not heal. I feel that not being able to understand death, watching people I love suffer and become weaker every day, in pain and unable to carry on, all the while knowing that they were never going to get any better, was one of the hardest things I went through. I was angry at God, and since I already hadn’t been able to cultivate the relationship that I wanted, I was also bitter. I wanted to believe that he was all powerful, in fact I did believe it. Which meant that I was faced with feeling that if he was, then why would he allow these things to happen. It felt like a choice between the belief that he was all powerful and arbitrarily deciding who lived and who died, or that he wasn’t all powerful at all - something I couldn’t believe. I spent a couple of years in Barbados after my dad passed away, and then I returned to the UK.
When I got there, I went to another Anglican church (although you probably couldn’t tell from the outside… or the inside!!) No hymns, no liturgy, nothing that resembled Anglicanism, but I felt drawn there, and again - I taught Sunday school, cooked for Alpha, and immersed myself in church life. I felt like if I could just put my questions aside, then I could start to rebuild my faith. And I believed in the transformative power of God - even if I couldn’t experience it myself, I could see it at work in the lives of others.
This continued for a few years, until I was floored by another death - this time of a close friend. Remember I told you I had a friend who asked me to cook her dinner and to go to church with her? It was her husband. It was a devastating time, and I wrote about it at length in relation to my faith here, so feel free to read it.
Having lived through the death of both parents, and most of my grandparents, I was surprised that this one hit me hardest of all. They were devout in faith - my friend and her husband. They always prayed before they did anything. I could not reconcile in my head how such a thing could happen. I helped my friend pick up the pieces, while being very careful not to fall apart myself, and I distanced myself completely from church - even as her faith was bringing her comfort, mine was being eroded. I could not stand the unanswered questions any more, and I was tired of pretending.
I did a number of things which included increased voluntary work, more travelling, and some life prioritizing, and I moved back to Barbados. I will be honest with you - all of that time after my friend passed away, I had the distinct feeling that God was keeping an eye on me, and honestly, it made me annoyed. I felt more confused than ever. I wanted desperately to stop believing as it seemed that would quell some of my heartbreak. But when I returned to Barbados, I wanted a return to a faith of sorts. Shortly after I returned to Barbados, my grandmother passed away, as well as a schoolfriend - the son of the owners of the office where I worked. I felt so numb by this point, that I didn’t want to wrestle with more unanswered questions. I just wanted some peace, and somehow I thought I could find it at church - even though I had never found it there before. What I really wanted was to be in church but to detach from the idea of meeting with God. I know that may seem like a strange thing to want, but that is what I wanted, and I set out to find it.
Very recently, a friend told me that it was a bit childish to be angry at God because he didn’t “do what I want” (ie spare the lives of those close to me) and I was offended. I felt as if the only things I had ever really wanted in life were the health and safety of those that I loved. I never prayed for a car, or for money, or for anything for myself really - it always felt a bit selfish when there were serious things going on in the world - and it just felt as if it had been useless. Stepping away from church, I began to think about what was important to me. It was always - my relationships, my community and service. I always felt as if those things should have been in the backdrop of my faith, and I didn’t want to live without them, so I decided that I needed to find other ways to express them. In hindsight, my friend meant well, and I think she was trying to explain that God has infinite insight, while I may be shortsighted, but I don’t know… The deaths of those people I loved has continued to feel like a cruel trick, and I don’t know how to get past it, especially on those days when I miss them - which I still do after all of these years, especially on those days when things are beautiful and bright, and my nephew is funny and smart, and I wish that they were here to see it all.
My current truth - is that life is good. I know that reading all of this may sound as if I am miserable with life but the truth is - it sounds a lot more dramatic when it is on one page (or a few…) These things happened over years, and I have always found joy - sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. So I will end this as I started. Telling you some more of the wonderful things that came from my years in church. Wonderful friends and relationships that I don’t think I would otherwise have. A desire to learn more about Jesus - who I somehow cannot view as being the same as God. He seemed way more maverick. An open heart and a desire to serve others. I love the variety of people that I met on this journey. Even though I didn’t feel as if I could reconcile what I felt the church represented with some of the people I met, I learned that people are people - all of us with what could be considered good and bad in us - depending on how you look at it. I learned to trust and believe in our common humanity, and that allows me to connect with so many different types of people. I got to sing, and speak and bake brownies for teenagers - and there is nothing like the hug you get from a teenager who sees a big pan of brownies. I loved working with all of the sunday school classes, and I developed a real heart for youth and their vitality and unstoppable energy. I do not regret a minute of it. Do I wish that I had come away with a strong faith like some of the friends I have - sure! But I have definitely come away with more than my hands can hold, and so much that I could never have predicted, and I am so grateful for that.
And tomorrow on Good Friday, I will still turn on the radio (or find myself in church if I can grab a ride) to hear the story of the cross. There is something compelling about it in a way that I cannot describe, and as I sit there and listen, for a few hours at least, the questions in my mind are quiet, and I am at peace.
I wish you a blessed Maundy Thursday, and send you big love from a small island.
PS I took the photo of sunset on Easter weekend last year, and is still one of my favourites.